The Tesla Model 3 will be a great car—someday

Rick Newman
Senior Columnist

Change is hard. The Tesla (TSLA) Model 3 is here to persuade you it’s worth the trouble.

The moment you land in the Model 3, you realize some things are never going to be the same. There are almost no buttons or dials, with climate, radio, vehicles settings and just about everything else controlled from a laptop-sized touch screen. There’s no shifter, just a short stalk on the steering column for toggling between drive, reverse and park. A/C vents? There’s just one—that narrow, barely noticeable slit running across the entire dash.

Oh yeah—there’s no gas tank, either, since the Model 3 is a pure electric sports sedan that runs on battery power.

The Model 3 is the car that will either save or sink Tesla, depending on whether you believe Elon Musk, the company’s brash CEO, or the many Tesla critics who think the upstart automaker will run out of money before it’s able to turn a profit.

In our abbreviated test, Pras Subramanian and I marveled at the innovations Tesla engineered into the Model 3, as you’ll see in the video above. But we also noticed some glaring deficiencies that might warn of quality problems that could turn off buyers. Our bottom line: Tesla has produced a game-changing vehicle – but only if it can make rapid quality improvements and promptly fix problems that crop up on vehicles already on the road.

Sure looks pretty: The Tesla Model 3. Source: Tesla

The Model 3 is still somewhat scarce, since production has been plagued with snafus and Tesla is still far short of turning out its goal of 5,000 cars per week. The company doesn’t provide test cars to journalists the way most automakers do, so we rented a Model 3 from an owner in the New York City area, via Turo.

The Model 3 starts at around $35,000, but the early production models on the road now were more expensive versions with a suite of options, including a more powerful battery. The car we rented went for about $56,000, including an extra $9,000 for the beefier battery, which boosts range from 220 miles on a single charge to 310 miles. Other options on the model we tested include a glass roof, two built-in smartphone docks and a few other goodies.

Pricey? Yeah. But satisfying, still. Pras and I both loved the 3’s driving dynamics. Acceleration from a stop is comparable to what a high-output V-6 might provide. Passing power is even more impressive, as the electric motor generates the kind of instant torque you might normally associate with a throaty V-8 (that gets about 15 miles per gallon). Steering is expertly tuned for taut handling. However those heavy batteries are arrayed, their weight seems to draw the Model 3 down into the pavement as if magnets were at work. You smile a lot in this car.

Tesla reimagined interior controls in a way that’s confounding at first, but promptly becomes intuitive. Example: We drove in rain, and it was frustrating not having the familiar windshield wiper stalk on the steering column, to flick the wipers up with a finger or two when you need to clear excess water. But the same functions reside on a menu on the lower left-hand corner of the giant touch screen, just a couple inches from where your right hand rests on the steering wheel. Once you know where it is, your brain quickly adjusts, and retrains your finger where to reach.  It’s the same with controls for the radio, climate system, mirror adjusters, and all the rest.

The flaws emerge

So what’s the problem? Two words: the basics. All those production glitches have left some obvious flaws in the fit-and-finish department—one area of car production those dinosaurs in Detroit and Stuttgart have learned to master over the years. In the cabin, for instance, the headliner meshed poorly with neighboring components, protruding at seams that should have been flush. Outside the car, Pras found notable variations in the gaps between body panels that shouldn’t have been there.

A Detroit consulting firm named Munro & Associates has been tearing down two Model 3s it purchased, and reporting on its discoveries as it probes Tesla’s manufacturing prowess. Strong points, so far: the Model 3’s suspension, electronics, and batteries. But the firm said the build quality on the first Tesla it examined was comparable to a Kia from the 1990s. For those who don’t get the reference, that’s an F.

Tesla has been retooling its production line to fix such problems. That’s obviously encouraging, but it also suggests the overall quality of Model 3s on the road will vary sharply, with the earliest models sold being the worst. In the software business, it’s considered okay to roll out “beta” versions of software that haven’t been completely debugged, as long as you tell users what they’re getting. In the car business, that’s not okay, because you can’t go back and resculpt sheet metal the way you can upgrade software, eliminating prior bugs. Early adopters have essentially gotten an inferior product, compared with later buyers. And they don’t get a discount; they just get to brag about getting their cars first.

Some drivers may not care about the gaps between body panels, or a perfectly flush headliner. But these flaws may portend other quality problems buyers will care about—rattles that materialize, parts that malfunction, perhaps even an unusually high rate of recalls. It’s pretty cheeky to ask buyers to fork over $56,000 for a car still in beta testing. Credit Musk with bravado.

The Model 3 does have a conventional steering wheel, along with a brake and gas pedal. But there’s also a $3,000 option that readies the car for “full self-driving capability … with no action required by the person in the driver’s seat.” That feature will only arrive, however, when the technology is ready and regulators approve it, which could be years away. By then, hopefully, Tesla will have worked out the kinks.

Confidential tip line: rickjnewman@yahoo.com. Encrypted communication available.

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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman

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